With Your Chrome Heart Shining in the Sun

I wouldn’t really call myself a “car person.” I don’t know much about Teslas, I don’t understand the difference between a V6 and a V8 (tomato juice?), and I am perfectly happy to ride in our minivan instead of our fancier Audi. That being said however, I don’t want to be driving around in a jalopy. And when I was in high school, I did own a classic German automobile. It was a snazzy 1977 red convertible Volkswagen Bug (those were the days). So when Bob suggested we visit the Mercedes-Benz showroom on our recent trip to Berlin, I was game. Spend a few minutes looking at fancy cars? Why not? Little did I know the showroom was three huge floors, with climbing walls, a restaurant, a coffee bar, and even a kids’ miniature race course.

The Mercedes/Benz showroom is indeed a car dealership, as there were people negotiating deals while we visited, but also a museum with stunning works of art, albeit mechanical ones. Cars range in price, with the least expensive (A and C class, apparently) on the lower levels, and the most expensive at the top. There are classic cars on display, and cars for sale priced in the 200,000 euro neighborhood. Cars hang suspended from the ceiling, and as you climb floors on the neon lit escalators you can soak in all the money that went into this extravaganza. It’s pretty fascinating actually. I guess it’s easier to sell really expensive cars when your showroom is a destination all by itself.

We appeared to be two of the only gawkers that day. Everyone else looked like they were working—trying to sell cars (although they never approached us, huh?), or buying. Then there was a birthday party going on at the race course, which features stoplights, a track with sharp turns, and Mercedes Benz bumper cars. Oh to be young.

Bob and I did have a conversation about what car we would buy if we were seriously shopping. He leans toward a Mercedes S class in a black matte finish, reminiscent of the Batmobile. I, on the other hand, see myself in a vintage baby blue Mercedes convertible, driving down the open road, radio blaring, with nary a care in the world. I’m pretty sure I don’t have grey hair in this scenario either.

It turns out I might just be a car person after all.

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I Hitched a Ride with a Vending Machine Repairman

In news that can only be categorized as “extremely important,” the San Francisco airport recently came under twitter fire for (wait for it) a vending machine that sells down vests. Although it’s been in the airport for about a year, social media just caught wind of it, and SFO is being mocked for selling clothing from a vending machine. A spokesman for the airport says that the machine is doing more than $10,000 in sales per month, which is not too shabby if you ask me. Especially when you consider that a vending machine only takes up about 10 square feet of floor space and must have very low overhead.

I can’t say that I’m surprised however, as the company behind the machine is Japanese clothier Uniqlo, and if you’ve ever traveled in Japan, you’ll know that vending machines are all over the country, selling just about anything imaginable. They’re on well trafficked streets in big cities, and they’re in quiet residential neighborhoods too. We’ve seen everything from cold beer and hot coffee, to candy and toiletries, to warm corn chowder, canned carrots and tomato sauce, and even underwear. The advertising pictures on the machines are often just as entertaining as the items for sale. Take, for example, Tommy Lee Jones crying with a can of Boss coffee. Why? Who knows.

We also found ramen shops with vending machines right inside their front door, where you select and purchase your meal, and then hand a ticket that comes out of the machine to the cook. This way the cooks don’t deal with any money, just food!

Our first time in Japan we ate at such a noodle shop in Tokyo. It was quite a treat to try and figure out how the system works, then to play “what’s behind door number 3” as we guessed at which ramen dishes we might be ordering based on the Japanese characters next to each button. We were never sure of exactly which ramen we ordered, I can only report that they were both delicious.

One thing we did figure out was the number of “fire” symbols directly related to how spicy the dish was. That, by the way, is a universal symbol, that due to jet lag, sensory overload and the pressure of MAKING A DECISION in a very foreign and somewhat pressure-packed situation, we missed completely. We still refer to that meal as the time we each ordered a bowl of fire. Delicious yes, but also hellishly hot.

By and large, I like personal service when I shop. I hope so, because I’m in the retail business. But I also understand the idea of quickly being able to purchase items from a vending machine. I may never buy underwear (at least that’s the story I’m telling), but a soda or bottle of water, maybe. Especially when I’m in Japan, and if I can find Tommy Lee Jones shedding a few tears, even better.

 

Man, I Feel Like a Woman

by Nancy Bestor

Ninety-six percent of the time, I like being a woman. I like talking about my feelings. I like romantic comedies and chick lit. And I like the fact that I don’t like football one bit. But there’s about 4% of the time that I really wish I were a man. Ladies, I’m sure you get where I’m going with this. It’s when I have to use the restroom that I wish I was a man. You know, the whole peeing while standing up thing. Men are fortunate that they rarely have to sit or squat on a toilet. And they have little idea of just how good they have it. Am I right ladies or am I right?

I think of this when I’m using a cold restroom and the toilet seat is freezing on my behind. I think of this when I’m using a public restroom where the toilet is disgustingly dirty. I think of this when the line for the ladies restroom is five times as long as the line for the men’s restroom. And I think of this when I’m traveling in a country that still uses squat toilets. (I also think that I should have done more core workouts when I’m using a squat toilet, but that’s best saved for a blog about how I don’t exercise enough.)

I was reminded of this when Bob and I were in Amsterdam this past winter. You see, we were drinking beer in the afternoon. Now I don’t know about you, but when I drink beer in the afternoon (well actually when I drink beer anytime) I have to pee, quite frequently actually. And before we left the bar I did use the facilities. But then there we were, walking around the beautiful city, and I had to use the bathroom again. Bob too needed to use the restroom. And guess what we found? A public urinal, right in the middle of downtown Amsterdam. That’s right, Bob, being a man, was able to relieve himself just when he needed to (see the urinal in action in the photo at left). I, on the other hand, had to find a restroom in a grocery store. I don’t begrudge Bob. I don’t even begrudge the city of Amsterdam. The design of the urinal was quite ingenious, and it obviously didn’t take a lot of effort or money to install it on the city streets. I’m just taking this opportunity to complain about something loosely travel related that I can’t change, because what is a travel blog for if not an opportunity to share interesting travel stories complain?

There’s one country, and one country alone, that knows what women need when they’re using the restroom, and that’s Japan. Every time we’ve visiting Japan, I am happy to be a woman 100% of the time, and I thank my lucky stars that I can sit down on a public toilet and take advantage of the seat warmer, the music, the cleaning spray, and the blow dryer for the bum, to name just a few things. Surely Japan’s toilets were invented by a woman. If only every country, including my own, could adopt these toilets, then I could move onto more important travel blogging topics like who in their right minds would hang their toilet paper roll under vs. over?

Roadside Oddities of the American Southwest

by Robert Bestor

The arid, wind-swept expanses of the American Southwest are of course covered in awe-inspiring natural wonders. From the Grand Canyon to Monument Valley and from Arches National Park to Mesa Verde, seemingly around every bend, over every bluff and behind every tumbleweed, mother-nature’s biggest and best work, standing with head held high, chest filled with pride and a defiant chin, abounds.

In such a grandiose place it’s easy to feel small. Fortunately these wide-open spaces have attracted and inspired some big thinkers who in turn have dreamed up some the finest and funkiest of roadside attractions. On the long and lonely highways and byways east of Las Vegas we visited a few such oddities early this spring.

Double Negative

Other than what I find pleasing and what I find puzzling, I know little about art and art history. I am aware, however, that one of its biggest conundrums is its definition. What IS art? Well Michael Heizer’s Double Negative certainly had me pondering that very question. DSC09898Located an adventurous few miles down a rough gravel road atop Mormon Mesa near Overton, Nevada, Double Negative is pretty much a really big ditch. But I must admit, it’s kind of cool. One of the first “earthworks,” art that uses the earth as its canvas, Double Negative is simple and stark. At an impressive 1500 feet long, 30 feet wide and 50 feet deep, this example of “land art” amazingly feels scaled to its surrounding desert landscape. It’s definitely worth a detour if you are in the neighborhood. You can get there in a sedan but an SUV would be better. Just don’t drive off the edge of the mesa!

Directional Arrows

Another of our digressions as we sped east on US 15 came courtesy of the United States Post Office. With only somewhat handy GPS coordinates, we were able to locate a concrete airmail directional arrow IMG_6272just outside of St. George, Utah. Also known as beacons, these arrows are scattered about the country and guided airmail pilots before modern navigation systems came into use. Transcontinental Air Mail Route Beacon 37A is in excellent condition. It sits on a bluff on the outskirts of a housing development, just a short walk up what we nervously dubbed “rattle snake hill”, and also offers a tremendous view of the surrounding desert.

Little Hollywood

During the golden age of the Hollywood western, Kanab, Utah was a hub of film activity. Over the years, movie and television classics like Stagecoach, The Lone Ranger and El Dorado were filmed in the area. Most of what remains from that era can be found at Kanab’s Little Hollywood Museum and Gift Shop.IMG_6343 While the place is a little funky, tired and threadbare (kind of like me), its collection of movie sets evokes fond memories of gritty westerns and their heroes, villains, drunks, and innocent bystanders caught up in it all. On a hot afternoon it’s not to difficult to imagine Gary Cooper riding into town in search of a cool sarsaparilla, or Lee Van Cleef looking for some whisky and a little trouble to go with it. IMG_6340The museum is free so it’s definitely worth a stop and the gift shop has all you’d expect including cowboy boots, hats and shirts, and movie posters and Native American art. And if you really love it, it looks like the place, and everything in it, is for sale for a cool 2.85 million dollars. Hmm? Nancy and I do have retail experience……

The Answer My Friend, Is Blowing in the Wind

Bob and I travel a fair amount, and while we’ve endured many delayed flights over the years, we’ve never missed a connection. Until this Spring that is, when our flight out of Las Vegas into San Francisco was 55 minutes late. You’d think that wouldn’t be that long to mess everything up, but alas, it was. We had a 50 minute connection in San Francisco from our original flight arrival time until our flight to Medford was scheduled to depart. And, you guessed it, the Medford flight was right on time, and we missed our connection by about 10 minutes.enhance (1)

We were those people that ran over to our gate in the hopes we could still make it, only to find the ramp doors had been locked, and the plane had just pulled out of the gate. This was the last Medford flight for the evening, and, to compound things even further, the reason given for our delayed flight out of Las Vegas was weather. It wasn’t raining, it wasn’t snowing, and it didn’t even seem windy. But our flight was delayed because of weather. This meant we had to stay the night in San Francisco, and United would not compensate us because it was “out of their control.” They rebooked us for the 8am departure the next morning, and washed their hands of us, metaphorically speaking.

I tried to get some help at the customer service desk. Our plane had actually landed at SFO in time but then sat just off the gate in San Francisco for 10 or 15 minutes, waiting for another plane to head out. If we had been able to slide immediately in to our gate, we certainly would have made our connection. This too, according to United, was weather related. Planes leaving SF were backed up. Every plane except the one that was headed to Medford of course.

Bob in the meantime was logging in to www.hotels.com and www.hotwire.com, trying to find a nearby hotel at a reasonable price for a few hours so we could get some sleep. For future reference, when it’s 11pm and you need a hotel by the airport that evening, trust me when I say there are not many deals to be had. I think the hotels know they’ve got a hot buyer, and they’re apparently not going to offer any “we’ve got 50 rooms available and we’ll sell them at any cost” deals.

Our nearby room cost about $180 on hotwire, for five hours of sleep. This was a bargain based on the two hotels I called directly, who wanted to charge us $220. We considered “sleeping” in the airport, but we’ve done that before, and frankly, I’m getting a little too old for that nonsense. Sometimes you’ve just got to suck it up and pay the last minute hotel fee. We’ll never know what the “weather” was that delayed our flight, but it was totally out of our control. Apparently, it was totally out of United’s control too.

I Still Have a Suitcase in Berlin

DSC08947One of the many reasons I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Berlin earlier this year was the city’s ability to seamlessly blend the old (history, architecture, and the like) with the new. Around practically every corner were sobering reminders of the past: the deep history of Germany, Jews in Germany, and life in a Nazi occupied State. This was tempered, however, by the present: young German families happily pushing strollers through street markets, modern and striking architecture, and many ethnic cultures living together with ease, at least from my perspective. It was a fascinating five days in a city I have read much about, and I was delighted to finally see it with my own eyes. While Bob had been to Berlin once before, it was in 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin wall, so as you can imagine, much has changed, so for him it was like visiting for the first time as well.

We started with a visit to the Berlin Wall Memorial. This mile long open air park is located along “no-man’s land,” the former strip between East and West Berlin. The memorial is dotted with excellent signage and displays that tell the stories of people who tried (some with success and some with failure) to escape over and under the wall. There are markings of the exact tunnel locations that were dug under the wall, there are photographs of West Berliners who assisted in their fellow German’s escape from East Berlin, and even a small stretch of the preserved wall, complete with a guard tower. DSC09002I learned so much from this outstanding Memorial. Almost 30 years later, life has moved on around no-man’s land. Homes have built up where once was the “death strip.” Vegetable and flower gardens dot the landscape, and children ride their bikes through the park, paying little or no attention to the history. Life moves on, whether we want it to or not.

Another day found us on a Rick Steves walk of the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate. The Reichstag is the home of Germany’s government. A very modern and architecturally stunning building, admittance to the Reichstag is free, but reservations are required. Once admitted, you can ride the elevator to the glass dome, with a cone of 360 mirrors that reflect natural light into the legislative chambers below. The dome has a ramp that visitors can walk up to see the sights of the city from on high. Damaged during WWII by fire and air raids, the Reichstag was rebuilt in 1999. It is well worth making reservations, which we made online, but can at times be made on the spot. Note that ID is required.

Later in the day we took the U-Bahn, Berlin’s rapid transit railway, to KaDeWe, or Kaufhaus des Westens, as it is officially known, Europe’s second largest department store. Here we went straight to the 6th floor, devoted entirely to, you guessed it, food and drink. We browsed the food options, but really were intent on getting a seat at the Budvar Bar, where we had two beers each, IMG_5836as well as potato and sausage soup and two pretzels. It was outstanding. There were many “old-timers” sitting in the bar, drinking beer and chatting with the highly efficient bartenders. Bob noted that when we settled up, the barman who took our money was not the one who had served us, but he knew exactly what we had eaten and drunk and quickly gave us the tab. That’s good service. It is definitely worth a stop, not to mention a beer or two.

We had a sobering visit at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. More than 2700 coffin shaped pillars cover a Berlin city block, remembering the six million Jews killed by Nazis during WWII. The memorial was constructed in 2005, and Rick Steves says using the word “murdered” in the Memorial’s title was intentional and quite a big deal. We also went in the information center, which among other things, follows 15 Jewish families from all different backgrounds who all were murdered.

We walked a great deal in Berlin, exploring many different neighborhoods, including our Airbnb’s own, the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. What was once an area for artists, students, squatters and idealists, is now an up and coming hipster and young family district. We enjoyed beautiful architecture here, as well as a street market and the chance to see a renewed Berlin. We ended up at MauerPark, once—again—another area that used to be no man’s land between East and West Berlin. DSC08991Now a lively park, this neighborhood gathering place includes an 800 meter remaining section of the Berlin wall that is now known as a graffiti wall where artists paint their work, covering up what was once a sad part of history with a new and bright energy, not unlike Berlin as a whole.

Notes:

I’m a big fan of Rick Steves guidebooks, as I believe they give updated and detailed information better than any other series out there. Steves’ Berlin guide is the best yet, as there was so much we learned on the walks detailed in the book. There were so many tiny sights that we would have walked right by if Rick wasn’t telling us where to look for them.

As I mentioned above, Berlin is quite big and spread out, so we took advantage of the excellent U-Bahn system to get to further distances in the city. Easy to use, the fares range from 2-4 euros depending on the distance traveled.

If you’re looking for an excellent gift from Berlin, we bought chocolates at an 150 year old chocolate shop, Rausch. Even if you’re not buying, it’s worth a stop to see huge designs on display, made out of chocolate. DSC09041Another excellent shop is the Ampelmänn Shop, selling the iconic Berlin Ampelmännchen brand (little traffic light men). The Ampelmännchen is the symbol shown on pedestrian signals in Germany, and is one of the few features of East Germany that is still proudly recognized.

Wading in the Water at Zion National Park

By Robert Bestor

I sure enjoy an adventure. But on the other hand, these days I’m not really excited about roughing it. In fact, I’m man enough to admit that any adventure that features easy access, quality rental gear, spectacular scenery, and a hot shower and soft bed at the end of the day is right up my alley. Our recent visit to Utah’s Zion National Park and our “conquering” of its magnificent Narrows Trail is a perfect example of a perfect day in the wilderness for me.

DSC09471The USA’s spectacular national park system is one of its greatest treasures. And while we’ve had the pleasure to visit more than a few, we were brimming with anticipation about our trip to Zion, as it had been a long while since we’d explored any of its most famous offerings.

We flew into Las Vegas, which is about a 3-hour drive from Zion. And, after a taqueria stop along the way, we headed straight to Zion Outfitter (they’re right at the south park entrance) where we rented their “Warm Weather” equipment package, which includes canyoneering boots, neoprene socks and a hiking stick. The package was $24 per person for the day, worth every penny, and we were able to pick everything up late in the afternoon, prior to our Narrows adventure the next day. Getting our gear in advance was key to getting on the “trail” bright and early to beat the crowds.DSC09564

For the easy access portion of our Zion visit we rented a cozy Airbnb in Orderville, Utah, which is about a 40-minute drive through the park to its southern entrance. We chose Orderville because it is close to Bryce Canyon National Park as well, which we also visited on this trip (story to come in a future eNews).

To beat the aforementioned crowds, were up before dawn. After our drive back to the park we found ample parking and were soon on a free park bus en route to the trailhead. Most of Zion is accessible only by bus. The buses run early and often and help to keep the park quiet and traffic free.

The Narrows Canyon trail begins at the Temple of Sinawa, which is the last stop on the park bus, and when we hopped off at about 8am only about a dozen other hikers hopped off with us. And soon after we set foot in the Virgin River (which begins after a one mile paved walkway) and had all spread out, it really did seem like we had the place to ourselves. At the end of the day we’d discover what a good idea it was to beat the crowds.DSC09528 (1)

It was a gorgeous morning. Perfect for hiking in the cool water in shorts and windbreaker. And with our canyoneering booties and hiking poles, moving through the water was fairly easy. The booties are surprisingly grippy and the water was crystal clear which made it easy to see where we needed to step. And don’t think that you don’t need the hiking stick. We saw a couple of hikers without them and even though we were there on a relatively low flow day, they didn’t look very comfortable negotiating the uneven surfaces, slippery rocks and rushing water. We spent most of the day in water about ankle to calf high, with a few spots where the water went to our thighs. The water flow was 30 cubic feet per second (CFS) on our visit.

The canyon is sublime. Its walls tower upwards of 1,000 feet above and are painted with earth tones that seemed to continually change in color and intensity as the morning light worked its wizardry. Early in our day we turned to look behind us and were astounded by a shining gold rock wall that was simply not there when we viewed it from the other direction. It was quite a sight.

According to Nancy’s Fitbit we put in about 11.5 miles on our out-and-back hike, which included a leisurely lunch in the sun and a short side trip up Orderville Canyon, which is an even narrower offshoot. We took our time and made lots of stops for pictures, snacks and to simply sit and enjoy our stunning surroundings.DSC09469

It wasn’t too long after we decided to turn around that we started to run into more of our fellow hikers. It was a trickle at first, but of course, the closer we got to the trailhead, the more crowded it became. We got back to the paved trail at about 3pm and over the mile leading up to that point we saw hundreds and hundreds of hikers (if not more!). It was quite the contrast to our early morning experience and made our pre-dawn wake up entirely worth it.

Soon we were back to civilization and looking for a burger and a beer. We found both and it wasn’t long after that we were sitting on the porch of our cute little airbnb, drinks in hand, reliving the day. It was then that I realized that I had seen The Golden Wall of the Zion Narrows and was set to sleep in a soft bed the same night. Perfection indeed. 

Notes:

The Narrows does close frequently in the spring, whenever the water flow is above 150 cubic feet per second. This is most common in March and April. It also closes when there is a flash flood warning.

We bought a seven day Zion National Park Pass for our car that cost $35. If you’re going to at least three national parks in a year’s time, the annual national park pass is the better deal, at $80, valid for 12 months.